At first glance, the CIA's release on June 26 of the agency's "family jewels"--well-guarded classified documents it had managed to hide for nearly 50 years--seems to be a cautionary tale about the danger of letting the government keep secrets. While the nation wasn't looking, the CIA was hatching plots that could have sprung from the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter: colluding with the Mafia, bugging reporters' phones, domestic spying on anti-- Vietnam War groups.
But even if it took decades --and no small amount of pressure --for the CIA to lift its curtains, the agency at least felt some shame about its past activities. The papers, said CIA chief Michael Hayden, are "reminders of some things the CIA should not have done."
But the current Administration has responded to vigorous complaints about its own controversial practices --rendition, domestic spying, extreme interrogation methods--with a shrug of the shoulders. In the permanent war on terrorism, there is less need to deny black-ops programs when they come to light. It's justifying them that becomes the endgame.
That's not to say all is transparency and light in Washington. Dick Cheney's now infamous reclassification of his office away from the Executive Branch to avoid added scrutiny shows an Administration that is still driven to conceal.
Some wise hands in Washington have learned to avoid secrets at all cost. Last month David Margolis, a 40-year veteran of the Justice Department nicknamed "Yoda" because of his deep authority in the building, testified that he actively avoided learning details of sub-rosa White House involvement in the U.S. Attorney firings.
The new secrets, however, aren't about what the government does. What Cheney and others refuse to reveal is who green-lighted these activities and whether anyone cared if they were constitutional. On June 27 the Senate subpoenaed Cheney and the White House for information about domestic spying without warrants, a program that, at least in rough outline, is already widely known.
We are left with a troubling question. Which is worse: the secrets we don't know about or the open secrets that the government doesn't bother to hide?